‘Lots of 5:30am alarms and a sticker system’: Alexandra Sheppard on life as an author

Alexandra Sheppard went to the University of Nottingham to study English but dropped out in the first year. She went on to work in advertising and, thanks to a writing course, she mastered the habit of writing every day. She published 'Oh My Gods' in 2019 and has been visiting schools since, inspiring Year 7s and Year 8s with talks on her novel, which marries modern day contemporary teen fiction with Greek mythology.

Via Zoom from her north-London home, Alexandra reveals how she cried with relief when she finally submitted the draft of her new YA novel, the book we should all read this Black History Month, and her favourite part of the job…

Turning writing into a career
‘I was working full-time in advertising when I did a course in writing. The writing habit [taught] with the course was to write for 15 minutes every day for 30 days and keep a log of your experience. If you feel the urge to continue past 15 minutes, do both 15 minutes minimum and try to stop after 15 minutes so that you feel excited for the next day.

After that, my writing habit looked like waking up before going to work, writing for about 45 minutes to an hour and then writing for maybe a couple of hours on weekends. Lots of 5:30am alarms and I had a sticker system to keep me motivated. Just above my desk, I had a giant annual calendar, and I gave myself a sticker every day that I wrote. My goal was to try and have as much of an unbroken streak as possible. I did that for three years to keep me motivated until I had a first draft and a second draft and then a third draft. And then I started submitting to agents.’

A writer’s life…
‘I’m not fully full-time, but [writing] is my main job and my main source of income. I don’t have to get up at 5:30am anymore, which is really nice. My writing habit is more relaxed, it’s being at my desk by 8am. On an ideal day, I’d write it for two hours max and then spend the rest of the day working on the other admin bits of surrounding being a writer. I was a social media manager before I became a writer. I’ve always kept one foot in that world as a freelancer, gradually, less and less. I really enjoy the social media work, it’s a lot easier than writing a book. And it’s nice to be part of a team and have something new for my brain to think about.’

An estimate of Alexandra’s average income based on the last tax year:

A love of Greek mythology
‘Disney’s Hercules has a lot to answer for that; it came out when I was eight and I loved it so much. It really cemented this love of Greek mythology that is very easy to nurture if you’re a bookish child, because it’s everywhere. I grew up in London so we went on quite a few trips to the British Museum. It didn’t feel like a locked in separate world. To me, it felt ingrained and entwined with pop culture.’

The best part of the job?
‘The school visits. And I never expected them to be. I was not a confident public speaker at all. I wasn’t sure how to craft my presentations so that they would be engaging. But the same rules apply whether you’re crafting presentations in an advertising boardroom, or to teenagers. It’s all about storytelling and being engaging and listening.’

You recently submitted the draft of your new YA novel. Congratulations!
‘I cried with relief when it was over as the hardest book I’ve had to write. It’s a YA novel from the perspective of four main characters and in first person, each with their own story. So it was essentially writing four stories at the same time. It was very challenging.’

Being a Black author in a ‘very white space’
‘I’ve always been a Black author in this very, very white space. I don’t know what it’s like to not be black in this very white space. I can say how much has changed since 2020. The first year my book came out, it was one of just a few Black children’s books by Black British authors that came out that year. I can’t remember the exact figure, but it’s in my school presentation, and the kids were appalled. Now that is not the case at all, publishers are starting to turn things around, whether that’s a trend or whether it will be for the long term, we’ll have to wait and see.

I’ve always been very lucky with my editors, in that I’ve had editors who haven’t questioned why I’ve made certain choices, editorially. A friend of mine is writing a book right now about quite a serious topic. And her editor is constantly questioning if she’s exaggerating the racism in it, and she is constantly having to show her evidence that is not exaggerated. That must be exhausting, having to make those cases all the time because someone is not doing the research outside of their world.

At the moment [when I visit a local school as an author] the kids are surprised to see a young Black person. I would love to go in and for them not to be so shocked. I think that’ll happen one day.’

Name a book that everyone should read for Black History Month
‘For adults: This One Sky Day by Leone Ross. It’s an absolutely gorgeous, joyful, rich, literary hilarious, sexy, just absolutely perfect book. It’s a truly genius, piece of work.

For kids, Grown: The Black Girls’ Guide To Glowing Up, by Melissa Cummings-Quarry. It’s aimed at Black girls. There’s advice in there that is useful for everyone who is young, from body image to getting your finances in order. One section that I found healing for my inner child was the bit about religion and how you balance a religious and spiritual life with a previous generation of your parents, who have very different views to you.’

Interview by Miriam Foley